I always enjoy testifying before congressional committees about the Constitution. Until a few weeks ago, though, I had never had to testify about my personal religious views.
That changed on June 10 when U.S. Rep. Louis B. “Louie” Gohmert (R-Texas) got a chance to ask me questions at a hearing. The hearing, sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, was supposed to be about “The State of Religious Liberty in the United States” – but for me it took on a bit of an inquisitorial tone.
I gave the standard five-minute summary of my testimony. During my remarks, I expressed skepticism about some of the statements by the three other witnesses (all chosen by the Republican majority), who asserted that there is a wide-ranging war on religion in America. I also issued a warning about how the radical redefinition of religious freedom crafted by people like them was the real danger to the First Amendment.
Then it was question-and-answer time.
There were a few inquiries about the state of school prayer litigation and the faith-based initiative from Democratic representatives, but soon the rotation came around to Gohmert.
I knew that Gohmert has a reputation for taking ultraconservative positions on various policy matters, but I will admit to being a bit perplexed by the line of inquiry he pursued with me.
He began by quoting one of Thomas Jefferson’s observations about God. His point seemed to be that Jefferson hadn’t really been a Deist after all. He then observed that Franklin D. Roosevelt had recommended that soldiers read the Bible and wanted to know, “Are you offended by that?”
I assumed that this line of questioning would lead to policy issues – perhaps a discussion of the role of religion in the military (which has been controversial lately). When I noted that I rather liked Roosevelt and had received a Freedom of Worship Award from the Roosevelt Institute a few years back, Gohmert noted that the award “wasn’t awarded by Roosevelt himself.” (No surprise there since FDR has been dead for nearly 70 years.)
It got even stranger. Soon Gohmert was talking about a “Seinfeld” episode where the character Elaine became upset to learn that her boyfriend was a Christian. This led to the real zinger: “Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to hell consistent with the Christian beliefs?”
Things were clearly unravelling fast. “I wouldn’t agree with your construction of what hell is like or why one gets there,” I replied. I was later able to add, “I personally do not believe people go to hell because they don’t believe in a specific set of ideas in Christianity.”
Gohmert then asserted, “So the Christian belief, as you see it, is whatever you choose to think about Christ – whether or not you believe those words he said that nobody, basically, goes to heaven except through me?”
I responded, “We could have a very interesting discussion some time, probably not in a congressional hearing” about theology. Getting the final word, Gohmert assured me that he did not mean to be “judgmental,” adding, “I appreciate your indulgence.”
I don’t know the religious background of every member of the subcommittee, but I do know there are at least two Jewish and one Buddhist member. I hope Gohmert wasn’t being “judgmental” about their after-death trajectory either.
The next day, there were dozens of blog posts about this exchange, generating hundreds of comments.
After an encounter like this, I always wonder what else I could have said or done. I got plenty of suggestions about this, too. Why didn’t I demand that the Democrats leap to my defense and insist that Gohmert stop his line of questioning? Why didn’t I echo the response of one participant at the infamous Joseph McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
I appreciated the advice, but I’ve concluded that I was probably on more solid ground with what I said. I had to assume that many of the subcommittee members have probably heard equally strange lines of inquiry from the gentleman from Texas before and were shaking their heads one more time.
The next day I appeared on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” where I labeled Gohmert “kind of a walking talking example of why we need separation of church and state.” Politicians, I noted, should not try to decide which theological beliefs are correct and which are not.
A protracted debate over theology seemed to be a less-than-productive way to spend the subcommittee’s time and the taxpayers’ money, so after the hearing I told Gohmert I’d be happy to have lunch with him to discuss the nature of hell and biblical interpretation in a more appropriate venue.
Gohmert and I obviously don’t agree on these questions. But we could still have an interesting discussion. I’ll let you know if that conversation ever comes to pass.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.